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Do we Really Need Scrum Masters?


Scrum Masters are in demand in the current times. The world is going the Agility way. Everyone is talking about Agility to become competitive, to survive and win the marketplace. 

And the Scrum Masters are the ones who are going to make it happen. 

And on the contrary, many experts are also suggesting that Scrum Master does not add any value. In fact, it is the team that does all the work and Scrum Master is hardly needed in Agile projects or making organizations Agile.

That leads to the topic’s questions – Do we really need Scrum Masters?

To explore the answer to this very relevant and controversial question, (I am adding the word controversial as many would have different opinions on this question as per the milieu and the context; however, I will try give a generic spin to the topic), we need to explore quite a few things on what is a Scrum Master and also bust some myths on Scrum Master. 

Let’s explore What is a Scrum Master in brief? 

The Scrum Master, simply put, is a bridge between the Product Owner and the Scrum Team. The Product Owner is a representative of the business and the Team is the one who actually does the work and delivers the results, services or product. 

The Scrum Master is the much-needed bridge and not just a conveyor of requirements from Product Owner. He / She is meant to help the Product Owner manage and prioritize the requirements in the Product Backlog or the Work-Item, make the Product Owner understand the Team’s perspective and at the same time, be the Product Owner’s representative to help the team understand the business requirements. And the team’s representative for the Product Owner – help the business understand the team’s challenges, set expectations on Agile processes, convince on the team’s high performance, etc. Further, the Scrum Master allies with different functional heads and upper levels of management to get the team’s work done efficiently. 

He carries with him a macro view of the project, which perhaps none from his team carries. 

Typically, the Scrum Master does the following

  1. Remove the Impediments for the Team 
  2. Communicate, communicate and communicate the Vision 
  3. Servant Leader – Carry the Water, Resources etc so that the team functions effectively 

The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values.“ — Scrum Guide

In a nutshell, the Scrum Master should strive to do the following: 

  • Challenge the team for better collaboration and productivity.
  • Assist the Product Owner work with internal and external stakeholders to improve the value and quality of requirements.
  • Share insight and challenges with team and colleagues at large. You can use CoP (Communities of Practice) or CoE (Center of Excellence) or you can inculcate Agility in organization by facilitating open sessions. 
  • Make sure that teams have fun. I truly believe teams having fun are more productive and deliver better quality work.
  • Evolve your Way of Working (WoW) – Build a culture of continuous improvement and try new Agile practices and go beyond the common Agile practices.

“The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.” — Scrum Guide 

The Scrum Master does a variety of things, but many say the Scrum Master is not really required for a variety of reasons.

Let’s explore some myths or reasons on why Scrum Master is not required:

1 A team member can be a Full time Scrum Master

Reason: The Scrum Master is not that busy in an Agile project. And a Team member trained with Scrum methods and guidelines can take on an additional role as a Scrum Master. 

My viewpoint – This is a very similar situation, I remember, I used to have in multiple Waterfall projects. The common argument was why the Project Manager is needed – Any technical member can do the job of the Project Manager. Well, he monitors the statuses and prepares the status report, which a technical lead can also do. This was typically a statement in a lot of IT organizations, but many later did realize the value of the Project Manager. He was not only preparing the status reports. He had to ensure the 10 knowledge areas and the 5 processes work in tandem, and ultimately delivered the project. He comes with a different mindset altogether. 

Similarly, in a Scrum environment, the Scrum Master comes with altogether different mindset and he sees things differently from a Team and a Product Owner. The role is an essential one and it does not overlap with the Product Owner role or the Team role. And that’s the reason it is created as one of the primary roles to run a Scrum project. 

In fact, in the Disciplined Agile tool-kit, there is the 4th role of Architecture Owner as a primary role, which is distinctly different from Team, Product Owner and Scrum Master. 

The Scrum Master brings value by performing the role and it is required full-time to bring Agility or produce value to the customer. Else you are compromising on the value, by saving a modicum cost of Scrum Master. 

2 A Scrum Master should handle multiple projects

Reason: The Scrum Master, many believe, does the same thing for multiple projects and is less occupied. Given these assumptions, why cannot he handle multiple projects? 

My view point: Although the above argument or reasoning cannot be dismissed completely, a Scrum Master is dedicated to a project and has to ensure that the project delivers on its goals. Some projects are more complex than others. And the complexity generally varies from project to project. Also, some teams are more mature than others. For example, some teams have done more Agile projects and they are used to the different practices and methodologies. Some teams are more long standing teams than others – i.e., they are the same teams together for a much longer duration and have developed a good understanding and a set culture among the team. The teams have gone through the routine and now completely understand the drill and process, and the Scrum Master perhaps is not required towards the latter half of the project. 

There can be a good possibility that Scrum Master can be shared across multiple projects given the context and situation. However, the Scrum Master is a primary role designed to be a full time role to achieve the goal of the project. You do not want to comprise on the project goals while focussing on the Scrum Master utilization. 

The idea is to pick what we need to focus on, be it utilization or the value delivered to the customer. Once you and the team are focussed on the right things, the Scrum Master role also becomes a lot more important! 

3 No Need for a Scrum Master for Matured Teams – They do the things on their own. 

Reason: The Matured Teams know about the Agile rules and guidelines, and they very well know what to do and when. The Scrum Master is an added overhead and does not add any Value. 

My View Point – Agree to the point that the Matured teams require less guidance than other inexperienced teams. But you cannot do away with a Scrum Master. I do not think so. 

Imagine a highly successful football team – the coach is on the sidelines and the team is doing the stuff and getting the trophy. The team plays football every season and knows the drill. However, the team needs to excel and do better than the last season, or at least maintain the momentum. The coach is considered pivotal in shaping the team’s fortunes. The Coach sees football from a different perspective and enables the team to excel and win the trophy. 

Your Agile team is more or less similar. The matured teams may require the coaches to help them excel or do better than earlier. For example, in Disciplined Agile, there is always a focus on continuous improvement and evolving your Way of Working (WoW). 

Companies like Spotify, Google focus a lot on evolving their Way of Working (WoW) and excelling and improving on their ways of working to remain apex in the competition. And that’s what differentiates these companies. And here, the Scrum Master is considered a pivotal figure in changing directions or improving or evolving their Way of Working. And focus on delivering the results. His involvement does not become less important for a matured team. 

The Scrum Master builds High Performance teams. In the DASSM workshop of Disciplined Agile, we focus on the Team Development ladder of Bruce Tuckman and go through the details of the above model. In every stage of the project, the Scrum Master has a role to play, sometimes a very active role and sometimes passive role. Further, the Team Development stages are not sequential in nature – but cyclical, for example, when a new person joins the team or in case of an external event, the team shifts from Performing to Storming phase, and accordingly Scrum Master’s role changes. The Scrum Master needs to anticipate situations and has to ensure that the team is into the Performing Stage to achieve quicker results, and build a high performance team. It is not easy as it sounds and the Scrum Master should be exceedingly well at the soft skills including Emotional Intelligence and Conflict Management. Many high end certification courses such as DASSM (Disciplined Agile Senior Scrum Master) emphasizes on soft skills and building high performance teams. 

Closing Thoughts

In a nutshell, the Scrum Master cannot be done away with. In fact, it is one of the primary roles to achieve Agility for a team and the organization. 

The Scrum Master role is a Coach for the Agile Team which helps them to achieve the goal. If the Scrum Master has time on the project and probably hasn’t done much on the project, you probably need to investigate if things are happening in the right way in the project. In my opinion, everyone should be fairly busy and involved to achieve the project goals. And as a Scrum Master and Agile, you need to constantly evolve your way of working. For example, Disciplined Agile’s DASM and DASSM certification focuses on these principles and have carved out a great role for the Team Lead or the Scrum Master. It is not only soft skills but also the Scrum Master needs to be active in helping the team to work on the Value Stream, Planning And designing Metrics for the project. In  Disciplined Agile Coach (DAC) certification, the Scrum Master goes one level higher and focuses on bringing agility for the organization. 

To me, Scrum Master is a pivotal role for the Team and the organization to achieve Agility, i.e. deliver value sooner to the customer. It also depends on how you organize your team structure in your organization. Further, the leadership also plays an effective role in developing the culture which can affect the team structure and collaboration within and among the teams. Thus, the Scrum Master role is also a play of various factors in the organization and cannot be looked at in isolation in a practical scenario. 

Like we said in our blog, Agile Adoption and Agile Transformation, Agility is a vehicle and the process is slow but effective to achieve Agile Transformation. The Scrum Master plays an important role in this Agile Transformation journey. 

Do we really need Scrum Masters? Very much. How much are they needed in the project? I would say full-time. However, every organization behaves differently and has a different culture, and many factors, as I suggested, come into play in a practical scenario. Comprising on the Scrum Master role means comprising on the goals and your project delivery and your Agility. My 2 cents is to take a long view and make your choice. 

Your thoughts and suggestions are most welcome. 

Happy Reading!


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